Fisherman's Wharf is already a circus show that most of us want to avoid, but there's one attraction along the Embaracadero that makes pushing through the crowds of tourists worth it.
With the drop of a coin, the Musée Mécanique has the power of bringing the past to life and entertaining our childhood euphoria. It aids us in finding the classic joy in playing with the quarter-clunking, old-school arcade games to the more modern, Japanese-inspired, Nintendo-nostalgic car chase booths -- all of which are present in this free museum that dedicates itself to showing the evolution of the arcade.
With more than 300 games, the arcade is one of the largest privately-owned collections of vintage penny machines and mechanically-operated attractions from the past century, according to the museum. One of the best perks of such an expansive collection on public display is that there is something for everyone and most are only a quarter to operate.
From worn-down grannies reading tarot cards inside their glass casings to self-playing pianos to flip books peepshows of sultry women to apparatuses recreating executions in Europe and North America through little marionettes -- the collection will bring out a smile or chuckle from even the most stoic of individuals.
The collection represents a lifetime of collecting. Edward Galland Zelinsky was 11 when he started what would be this municipal treasure -- our equivalent of Coney Island in New York City. The museum was originally part of the attractions at Playland on the Beach (Ocean Beach), and then was re-located to the Cliff House when the park closed in the 1972, according to the museum website. In 2002, a remodel at the Cliff House threatened the future of the collection and it was moved to Pier 45 at the end of Taylor Street.
The museum is now run by Dan Zelinsky, the son of the original owner, who can be found on site most days in skates and a tool belt that jingles with tools and quarters, zigzagging from machine to machine -- fixing the high-maintenance arcade mechanisms -- because most are (or nearly are) a century old.
With so many options to play, here are just a few of the highlights that are worth every quarter:
• Laffing Sal: A life-size, voluptuous and freakish woman that moves in slow rocking motions while issuing a raucous, cackle of a laugh that frighting children and entertained/annoyed adults alike. The one here was at the entrance of Playland at the Beach and even had a film cameo (see next point).
• The Arm Wrestler: Ever wanted to touch the hand of an Oscar winner? Julie Andrews and Anne Hathaway filmed a scene for the 2001 Disney film, The Princess Diaries , at the Musée Mécanique and rubbed hands with this masked wrestler. Laffing Sal gawked nearby.
• The Red, Steam Powered Motorcycle: Possible the only motorcycle of this kind in the world built in nearby Sacramento in 1912.
• The English Execution: Do I need to say more? Also available in a French and Wild, Wild West version.
• The Tooth Pick Building Models: They were created by prisoners in Alcatraz and coincidentally, Alcatraz can be viewed in the distance while looking at these delicate art works.
The Musée Mécanique is open Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.
So next time you happen to find yourself near the Pier 39 area, maybe you'll drop by for a visit and drop a quarter for a few moments of fun?